The last photographs of Robin Gibb, who died in London on May 20 at the age of 62 from cancer and intestinal problems, show a man almost too frail to support the weight of his trademark blue-tinted glasses. Yet throughout his long illness, and even after he slipped into a coma earlier this year, friends and family members continued to express the hope that the British star would stage a comeback. After all, Gibb had thrived for more than a half-century in the music industry as a member of the chart-topping band the Bee Gees, as a solo artist and as a songwriter, netting a universe of fans, a serious fortune and more awards than would easily fit on a mansion’s worth of mantelpieces.
And just two months before he died came another accolade that both reaffirmed his legacy and introduced his work to a younger audience. In April, the U.S. TV series Glee aired an entire episode named after the Bee Gees’ hit “Saturday Night Fever,” written for the soundtrack of John Travolta’s eponymous 1977 smash-hit disco drama. For the episode titled “Saturday Night Glee-ver,” the characters Finn and Rachel performed two dance-floor ballads the Bee Gees wrote for the movie, “More than a Woman” and “How Deep Is Your Love,” and the full cast strutted its stuff to the joyous “Stayin’ Alive,” and the title track.
It’s hard to imagine clearer proof that Gibb and his fellow Bee Gees — older brother Barry, 65, who survives him, and Robin’s twin, Maurice, who died at 53 in 2003 — have carved a place for themselves in popular culture more lasting even than their long-lasting band. Yet in interviews, the siblings often seemed defensive, as if their achievement and legacy might still be challenged.
Some of that prickliness might have reflected an early life that was far from featherbedded. The Gibbs’ talent showed early — they began performing when Robin and Maurice were only 6 and Barry a steadying presence of 9 — but a talent for getting into trouble also manifested in childhood, through truancy and small acts of vandalism and theft. In 1958 the family (including infant brother Andy, who would become a solo star and die tragically young at age 30 from a heart ailment) emigrated from Manchester, England, to Redcliffe, a suburb of Brisbane, Australia. They traveled in search of a better life but also in an attempt to give the boys a fresh start. “A lot of people tend to think that [because] we have had phenomenal success, that you always had phenomenal success, and that it was always like that for you,” Robin told a biographer. “That you’ve never had to work hard before that. They always have the idea that as children you had a silver spoon in your mouth and that you were living on beautiful manicured lawns of suburbs. It was never like that for us. We had come from a very working-class background and we worked damn hard.”
The Bee Gees collected the trappings of music industry success — including nine Grammy Awards and 200 million albums sold — but never acquired the patina of cool that often accompanies such celebrity or the thick skins to ignore barbs. That was unfortunate for a group so easily parodied. In 1980, a spoof group, the HeeBeeGeeBees, climbed the charts with a song titled “Meaningless Songs (in Very High Voices).” In 1996, the Gibbs cut short their appearance on a British chat show when the host cracked a few mild jokes at their expense.
(PHOTOS: Robin Gibb, 1949-2012: Remembering the Bee Gees co-founder)
In the end, the joke was on anyone who couldn’t see beyond the disco shirts, bad hair and occasional public awkwardness to the talents that underpinned decades of success as performers and songwriters. The brothers sang in gorgeous harmonies and became as well known for Barry’s falsetto as for Robin’s truer tones. Their 1960s hits include “Massachusetts,” “Words” and “I Started a Joke.” In 1969, during a brief split from the band, Robin released “Saved by the Bell,” reuniting with his brothers a year later at the start of a decade that would see the Bee Gees reinvent themselves as the kings of disco with a series of hits including “Jive Talkin’” and “You Should Be Dancing” and, of course, the club classics from Saturday Night Fever. The Gibbs’ canon also includes songs made famous by other performers, including “Chain Reaction” (Diana Ross), “Islands in the Stream” (Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton), “Woman in Love” (Barbra Streisand), “Heartbreaker” (Dionne Warwick) and “Emotion,” which was covered by Destiny’s Child.
Robin was too sick to attend the premiere of his first, and his last, classical piece — a requiem written with his son Robin-John to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic — that debuted on April 10 in London. Robin had planned to sing one of the songs, “Don’t Cry Alone.” Instead, the audience listened moist-eyed to a recording of that pure voice: “I’ll be there for you forever. Don’t you ever cry.” It seems unlikely that his fans, veterans or new converts, will comply.